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Tomislav Nikolic, 'Toma The Gravedigger,' Elected Serbian President

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Democratic Party leader and and presidential candidate Boris Tadic addresses media after presidential elections in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, May 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Democratic Party leader and and presidential candidate Boris Tadic addresses media after presidential elections in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, May 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE, Serbia -- New Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic is a veteran ultranationalist who claims to have transformed himself into a pro-EU populist.

The 60-year-old former cemetery manager – nicknamed Toma The Gravedigger – had lost twice before winning against liberal Boris Tadic on Sunday.

During the 1990s Balkan wars, Nikolic was the deputy leader of the extremist Serbian Radical Party, which was even more hardline than late strongman Slobodan Milosevic – who plunged the region into its ethnic conflagration.

Nikolic was a loyal disciple of Vojislav Seselj, a firebrand right-wing politician whose trial is under way at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

He supported Serbia's warmongering in the former Yugoslavia, and even fought briefly in Serbia's notorious volunteer units during the war in Croatia.

Nikolic was the deputy prime minister in Milosevic's government in 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia to stop the war in Kosovo.

His Radical Party led the effort then to silence any dissent in Serbia, and Nikolic shocked the public by showing no sympathy over the 1999 slaying in Belgrade of an independent journalist, whose killers have never been found.

Nikolic's gradual transformation started after Milosevic was ousted in 2000, and Seselj was sent to the Hague in 2003.

Nikolic slowly shifted his position from far-right toward center-right, toned down his rhetoric and adopted a more tolerant policy.

While still the deputy leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Nikolic lost two presidential votes to Tadic in 2004 and 2008.

In 2008, Nikolic split from the Radicals to form his own Serbian Progressive Party. He remained staunchly pro-Russian, but also said he supported Serbia's membership in the European Union.

In these elections, Nikolic portrayed himself as a father figure with whom ordinary Serbs can identify. He criticized alleged corruption among elites and claimed he was a victim of a media lynching.

It worked.

"This crowns my political career and is one of the happiest days of my life," he said in declaring victory.

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